The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classifiedaspartame as “possibly carcinogenic.” This has sparked a debate over artificial sweeteners’ use, importance and safety.

Consumers need to know that this classification comes with a set of addendums. The agency is not a food-safety agency, meaning it merely looks at agents in themselves, not the amount regular consumers will take in. 

In the case of aspartame, a person weighing 130 pounds would need to drink between 12 and 36 cans of Diet Coke each day for an extended period for the sweetener to constitute a risk. That is way beyond most consumers’ regular consumption level, and it relativizes the perceived risk when reading the headline that “aspartame is possibly carcinogen.” The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives released a reporton the same day stating that within the recommended daily limit, the additive remains safe.

The statements appear contradictory for those who don’t follow the different functions of these health bodies, and they are likely to confuse consumers. Arguably, a lot of nutritional research has a tendency to do that.

In fact, artificial sweeteners have long been surrounded by a set of myths, one of which is that drinking diet soda makes you put on weight. There is a set of research that outlines that some artificial sweeteners may increase your appetite. While more research is needed on the issue, a striking fact in this conversation is that sweeteners are harm-reducing substitutes for the actual problem: sugar. Sugar is directly linked with a long list of dietary concerns, while artificial sweeteners reduce the amount of sugar intake of consumers in a responsible way.

It appears that to some, the discussion on artificial sweeteners is so much about harm reduction or the benefits of sweeteners — as in the case of aspartame for the sweet drink consumption of diabetics — but rather about a larger plan of abstinence altogether. 

In a 2019 piece for the Washington Post, columnist Tamar Haspel writes: “People don’t want to drink water. They want to drink soda. But the attitude in the nutrition community isn’t just that you shouldn’t drink soda — regular or diet — it’s that you shouldn’t even want to drink soda. It’s puritanical, holier-than-thou and breathtakingly condescending.” 

Haspel lays out in her piece that a lot of the pushback on artificial sweeteners and their alleged effect on gut microbiome is approximative at best and relies on a general distrust toward harm-reducing sweeteners.

Instead of pursuing the impossible task of making humans reject the lust for things that taste sweet, we should rather embrace sweeteners for the benefits that they are. Aspartame has prevented countless health problems as a sugar substitute. That in itself is worth celebrating.

Similar to aspartame, but more known for its use in sugar-free gum, is xylitol. This artificial sweetener is commonly used in sugar-free gum, associated with a list of health benefits ranging from improved memory retention to increased focus. When American researchers went to Malawi and analyzed the effects of chewing xylitol-containing sugar-free gum in 10,000 pregnant women, they found that those women who chew gum were 25 percent less likely to experience preterm births.

Interestingly, a food additive with similar advantages to aspartame and xylitol is stevia, which was previously approved by the FDA in the 1980s, only to be reintroduced as a safe sweetener in the 1990s. Stevia was initially believed to cause cancer, yet further studies dispelled those concerns. An animal study later found stevia to reduce the effect of diabetes and protect the kidneys. Unsurprisingly, stevia also faces less pushback because its sweet components are naturally occurring.

The debate on artificial sweeteners often misses the mark and loses sight of their actual purpose: reducing sugar consumption where it does the most damage.

Originally published here



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